Historically Speaking: When Generals Run the State

Military leaders have been rulers since ancient times, but the U.S. has managed to keep them from becoming kings or dictators.

The Wall Street Journal

April 29, 2022

History has been kind to General Ulysses S. Grant, less so to President Grant. The hero of Appomattox, born 200 years ago this month, oversaw an administration beset by scandal. In his farewell address to Congress in 1876, Grant insisted lamely that his “failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent.”

Yet Grant’s presidency could as well be remembered for confirming the strength of American democracy at a perilous time. Emerging from the trauma of the Civil War, Americans sent a former general to the White House without fear of precipitating a military dictatorship. As with the separation of church and state, civilian control of the military is one of democracy’s hard-won successes.

In ancient times, the earliest kings were generals by definition. The Sumerian word for leader was “Lugal,” meaning “Big Man.” Initially, a Lugal was a temporary leader of a city-state during wartime. But by the 24th century B.C., Lugal had become synonymous with governor. The title wasn’t enough for Sargon the Great, c. 2334—2279 B.C., who called himself “Sharrukin,” or “True King,” in celebration of his subjugation of all Sumer’s city-states. Sargon’s empire lasted for three more generations.

In subsequent ancient societies, military and political power intertwined. The Athenians elected their generals, who could also be political leaders, as was the case for Pericles. Sparta was the opposite: The top Spartan generals inherited their positions. The Greek philosopher Aristotle described the Spartan monarchy—shared by two kings from two royal families—as a “kind of unlimited and perpetual generalship,” subject to some civic oversight by a 30-member council of elders.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

By contrast, ancient Rome was first a traditional monarchy whose kings were expected to fight with their armies, then a republic that prohibited actively serving generals from bringing their armies back from newly conquered territories into Italy, and finally a militarized autocracy led by a succession of generals-cum-emperors.

In later periods, boundaries between civil and military leadership blurred in much of the world. At the most extreme end, Japan’s warlords seized power in 1192, establishing the Shogunate, essentially a military dictatorship, and reducing the emperor to a mere figurehead until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Napoleon trod a well-worn route in his trajectory from general to first consul, to first consul for life and finally emperor.

After defeating the British, General George Washington might have gone on to govern the new American republic in the manner of Rome’s Julius Caesar or England’s Oliver Cromwell. Instead, Washington chose to govern as a civilian and step down at the end of two terms, ensuring the transition to a new administration without military intervention. Astonished that a man would cling to his ideals rather than to power, King George III declared if Washington stayed true to his word, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

The trust Americans have in their army is reflected in the tally of 12 former generals who have been U.S. presidents, from George Washington to Dwight D Eisenhower. President Grant may not have fulfilled the hopes of the people, but he kept the promise of the republic.

Historically Speaking: How Malaria Brought Down Great Empires

A mosquito-borne parasite has impoverished nations and stopped armies in their tracks

The Wall Street Journal

October 15, 2021

Last week brought very welcome news from the World Health Organization, which approved the first-ever childhood vaccine for malaria, a disease that has been one of nature’s grim reapers for millennia.

Originating in Africa, the mosquito-borne parasitic infection left its mark on nearly every ancient society, contributing to the collapse of Bronze-Age civilizations in Greece, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, who died around 1324 BC, suffered from a host of conditions including a club foot and cleft palate, but malaria was likely what killed him.

Malaria could stop an army in its tracks. In 413 BC, at the height of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, malaria sucked the life out of the Athenian army as it lay siege to Syracuse. Athens never recovered from its losses and fell to the Spartans in 404 BC.

But while malaria helped to destroy the Athenians, it provided the Roman Republic with a natural barrier against invaders. The infested Pontine Marshes south of Rome enabled successive generations of Romans to conquer North Africa, the Middle East and Europe with some assurance they wouldn’t lose their own homeland. Thus, the spread of classical civilization was carried on the wings of the mosquito. In the 5th century, though, the blessing became a curse as the disease robbed the Roman Empire of its manpower.

Throughout the medieval era, malaria checked the territorial ambitions of kings and emperors. The greatest beneficiary was Africa, where endemic malaria was deadly to would-be colonizers. The conquistadors suffered no such handicap in the New World.

ILLUSTRATION: JAMES STEINBERG

The first medical breakthrough came in 1623 after malaria killed Pope Gregory XV and at least six of the cardinals who gathered to elect his successor. Urged on by this catastrophe to find a cure, Jesuit missionaries in Peru realized that the indigenous Quechua people successfully treated fevers with the bark of the cinchona tree. This led to the invention of quinine, which kills malarial parasites.

For a time, quinine was as powerful as gunpowder. George Washington secured almost all the available supplies of it for his Continental Army during the War of Independence. When Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, less than half his army was fit to fight: Malaria had incapacitated the rest.

During the 19th century, quinine helped to turn Africa, India and Southeast Asia into a constellation of European colonies. It also fueled the growth of global trade. Malaria had defeated all attempts to build the Panama Canal until a combination of quinine and better mosquito control methods led to its completion in 1914. But the drug had its limits, as both Allied and Axis forces discovered in the two World Wars. While fighting in the Pacific Theatre in 1943, General Douglas MacArthur reckoned that for every fighting division at his disposal, two were laid low by malaria.

A raging infection rate during the Vietnam War was malaria’s parting gift to the U.S. in the waning years of the 20th century. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. Army suffered an estimated 391,965 sick-days from malaria cases alone. The disease didn’t decide the war, but it stacked the odds.

Throughout history, malaria hasn’t had to wipe out entire populations to be devastating. It has left them poor and enfeebled instead. With the advent of the new vaccine, the hardest hit countries can envisage a future no longer shaped by the disease.

WSJ Historically Speaking: For Feb. 29, Tales of the Calendar Wars

A carved Mayan calendar on textured background. Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. PHOTO: ISTOCK

A carved Mayan calendar on textured background. Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. PHOTO: ISTOCK

Every four years on Feb. 29, we are reminded of one of life’s most puzzling conundrums: Time is both arbitrary and immutable. The “leap” making its appearance this Monday shows that the Western calendar on which we place so much reliance is a conceit—a piece of fiction introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582.

Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. Our Mesolithic ancestors were the first people to harness the movements of the cosmos to provide a fixed notion of the past, the present and the future. The oldest known calendar in the world was discovered in a Scottish field in 2013, notched into the earth some 10,000 years ago. Our forebears had created it by shaping 12 specially dug pits around a 164-foot arc to mimic the phases of the moon and track the months. Continue reading…